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Drug Use Across America Is Lower Than You Think

Rafael Castillo/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Drug use remains about the same as it was in the 1970s.

From Texas StandardWhen Justice Louis Brandeis described the states as laboratories of democracy, he couldn't have foreseen election day 2016. As the New York Times noted Monday, the most popular illicit drug in the nation – marijuana – could be legalized for recreational use in five more states this November. That would bring the total number to 10, including Washington, D.C.

This would be a watershed challenge to the enduring federal pot prohibition. But even putting aside the popular vote for a moment, Bill Martin, the head of the drug policy program at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, noticed something odd as the institute completed an update of its 40-year-old database on drug use in the U.S. – the data and the policies didn't add up.


Martin says the drug usage rates are about the same as they were in the 1970s when the federal government formed the Drug Enforcement Administration. What would surprise the layperson the most is the data showing the actual use of certain drugs, Martin says.

"Nearly 50 percent [of people] have used marijuana in their lifetimes, but only 8 percent in last month or so,” he says. “Marijuana is not even a gateway drug to even to more marijuana use.”

Cocaine and heroin use in the nation’s population are at far less than one-tenth of 1 percent. And opioid use isn’t actually a national crisis, Martin says, although it is a serious problem in the areas where it occurs.

"Our national drug policies, our media presentation, and public perception have really been quite disconnected from these data,” Martin says. “Most people who use these drugs stop using them – it's very closely correlated with age.”

Drugs use trends point towards a peak in adolescence around 18 to 21 years old and then usage drops until about age 25, Martin says. So a lot of drug-related charges could be happening around the time people are in the natural process of stopping use.

"If we treated our drug use as a public health problem rather than as a crime, we'd have so much less problems that the war on drugs, that prohibition has created," Martin says.

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
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